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Writing and grammar: The work continues in college

favicon I’m not teaching this year, but several of my students, now in college, have contacted me for help on their writing.

Interesting Point #1: The students seeking my help are those who struggled the most last year in my class. It makes me happy that they view me as a resource.

Interesting Point #2: We do our work on Google Drive. In fact, the students are using the same accounts they received as high school freshmen.

Interesting Point #3: Issues with grammar and mechanics do not go away. Just because you’re enrolled in college doesn’t mean that your longstanding problems with run-on sentences magically disappear.

Out of those three points, I’ve thought the most about the last one. After looking at New Dorp High School’s success with teaching writing, which emphasizes a bottom-up approach of teaching writing as complex thinking, I began to wonder: Was my approach on conventions the wrong way to go?

In other words, is there something wrong with having students write, showing them an error, explaining why it’s wrong, giving them ways to correct it, and encouraging them to be more conscious in the future?

There must be. After all, most of my students with significant grammar and mechanics problems still struggle with them. And they’ve probably wrestled with these concerns since fourth grade.

The students can fix the problem if I identify it, and they can identify it if we read their essay together, but on their own, they have trouble proofreading and revising their own work. They don’t see by themselves what they can see with others.

That’s the hard part for me as a writing teacher. Writing — especially the grammar part — is such a mystery. Why do some students just automatically know how to construct complex sentences? (It’s not just the amount of reading they do.) And then why are others able to improve rapidly, while some grapple with the same grammar obstacle year after year?

A question for loyal Iserotope readers: Let’s say a student habitually writes run-on sentences in the following two ways: (1) sentence and sentence, (2) sentence, conjunction sentence. What ways would you approach this student so that she can, for once, feel confident that she “gets it” and can move on? favicon


  1. Dan G.

    Hi Mark,

    I enjoyed this post for many reasons. I’m curious, how much editing of classmate’s papers did you have your students do? I’ve seen no studies on this. Informally, I’ve noticed that students are more able to identify the errors made in the work product of other than in their own work. I wonder if there is a correlation between students who become adept at editing the work of others, and improving their own writing mechanics?

  2. Mark

    Hey Dan! I hope you’re doing well. You’re right: Students do better at finding errors in others’ work but have trouble identifying their own. Anecdotally, I haven’t seen a correlation between peer editing skills and self-editing skills. This gap gets me to believe that the typical correcting-and-editing loop that most English teachers employ is not the best approach. The errors, after all, are ingrained habits. Perhaps the best method, as English teacher Kelly Gallagher suggests, is to use mentor texts to teach the tools of complex writing (which ends up being how to use grammar and mechanics well). What do you think?

Please share your brilliant insights!